The Neanderthal's dog had been barking all day. When the neighbours' car pulled up outside that evening, Ellen went out to have a quiet word, a considered word, but when it came to it, the words came out loud and furious. Why keep a dog? Why cage it in the garden? Why do this, day after day, torturing the animal and the neighbourhood?
'Do you want us to have it put down, then?' Cherie, the Neanderthal's wife, said as she ushered their daughter towards the house.
'No, of course not,' said Ellen, 'but maybe there's someone who'd like a dog. Someone who would care.'
The Neanderthal stepped close, towering over her, then turned away, moving to unload a case of lager from the boot. 'If you don't like it, move.'
Move? Wasn't she the homeowner and they the ones renting? She'd call their landlord, that's what she'd do, just as soon as she'd calmed down. Meanwhile, the barking had stopped. Poor dog. Poor Max. He was so sweet when he was let out of his cage and into the garden. Cherie or Lisa, the daughter, would do that, when the Neanderthal was out. Max would lick Ellen's hand with his slobbering tongue through the trellised fence when she offered her palm to him. She'd considered kidnapping Max, drawing him over the fence, all several slathering stones of him, and taking him to a shelter, but she'd heard that some euthanized the dogs they couldn't place. And surely the Neanderthal would suspect her role in Max's disappearance.
Cherie, she was OK; she'd look after Max better if it weren't for the Neanderthal's bullying, and as for Lisa, the lack of a teenager's noise through the thin walls was not natural. In fact the only sounds were the Neanderthal kick-starting his lungs in the morning and punctuating every sentence with the word 'Fucking'. Ellen could take him off perfectly, imitating his phlegmy cough and 'Fucking … fucking … fucking'. It was only funny as long as he didn't overhear her, so she kept her performances to the kitchen, where the walls were thicker. The two houses were mirror images of each other; kitchen backed on to kitchen, bedroom to bedroom, stairs spreading downwards in opposite directions from the upstairs landings.
The walls were only one brick thick, except for in the kitchen. Ellen had discovered this when her builder accidentally knocked a hole in her bedroom wall, and daylight from the Neanderthal's house shone through. Not wanting to face him, Ellen persuaded the builder to go round to apologise, with a promise to make good. She could hear the full exchange through the walls. 'I've had enough of it,' the Neanderthal shouted, 'All this fucking noise. You can fuck off out of it.'
Minutes later, Cherie called over the garden fence. 'These things happen … as long as you put it straight.' She smiled at the builder, arranged a time for him to do the work. 'My husband, he don't mean it; he's a pussycat, really.' Anyone less like a pussycat Ellen could not imagine. Though the silence that reigned much of the time he was home brought to mind a lion, padding round his lair, roaring when he wanted to show his power.
She wished the Neanderthal dead, and there were moments when it seemed it might happen, that he would clutch at his chest and fall. He looked so purple and bloated that he could be rolled and burst for juice, and he seemed to have trouble walking. Then she learned that bits of him were dropping off. Toes.
He'd had a wound that wouldn't heal. Diabetes, Cherie told her. You had to look after your feet with that. You had to look to your diet as well, and Ellen couldn't imagine him sticking to beansprouts and tap water.
'They call it the silent killer,' Cherie said. She was hanging out the washing, three days after leaving hospital herself. The loss of the Neanderthal's toes coincided with her having a hysterectomy. Ellen protested that she shouldn't be doing the housework, should be putting her feet up. 'I'm all right,' Cherie said. 'Lisa carried the basket out for me.' Ellen had seen that smile before, fixed to tell herself that everything was fine.
She was wearing a spaghetti-strapped top and leggings. Her face was made up, just to walk down the garden. Such a pretty woman, her body round but attractive in all the right places; such a waste, tied to a man like that. The Neanderthal hobbled out of the back door, his foot bandaged, steadying himself with a walking stick. 'Better get in,' she said. 'He'll be ready for a cup of tea.'
The next morning, Ellen opened her bedroom curtains and saw Cherie below, in her garden, wearing a fluffy dressing gown with pink hearts on it, smoking a cigarette. Her smile was absent, with no one to fix it for. A moment to herself, away from the house – just yards away – away from his coughing and smoking and swearing, but still within the confines of her garden, near the cage where the dog spent most of his days and nights.
All was quiet on New Year's Eve as Ellen went to bed. Forced to go to neighbourhood parties in other years, she had watched as the married and attached reached for each other at midnight. It was more than she could bear, to watch from the sidelines, or worse, be grabbed by some drunken individual.
Once, when the fashion was for fireworks as the year turned, the various neighbourhood parties decanted into the street to watch the display, and Nick from number 56 grabbed her as the chimes of midnight rang. He'd been leering at her for months, ever since her divorce, and that night, that New Year's Eve, he'd followed her into the party and grabbed her for a slow dance, held her indecently close. She'd reacted with all the passion of an ironing board, and he'd never bothered her since.
But that was in her old neighbourhood, when she was still in what the solicitors quaintly referred to as the marital home. In this new place, this village, people left her alone.
This New Year's Eve, she slept through the turning of the year. It was dark when she woke, except for the green digits on the clock glowing 03.15. A thud, as if a body had hit the wall in the bedroom next door, a female whisper, as if pleading, a cold whimper, then silence.
She lay with her eyes wide open, fingers clutching the duvet. She wondered whether to let things be, now it was quiet, but she would not be able to live with herself if something terrible had happened. She crept down to the kitchen to make the call, so as not to be overheard. Was it an emergency? Yes. 999. She was shaking as she dialled the number. It would be a while, the operator said. The police were very busy. No doubt there were hundreds of such calls, violence at home, fighting in the streets.
Ellen made a camomile tea and sat on the sofa. She waited for the police to arrive. She'd see the lights of their vehicle through the curtains; hear them knock at the house next door. But there were no headlights, no knock, nor any voices to be heard on the other side of the wall. She lay on the sofa with a blanket pulled over her and fell into a deep sleep. Had the police come by and found no reason to knock at a dark and quiet house? Perhaps they had not come at all. Then she saw Cherie out with the dog late morning. She wasn't close enough to notice any bruising, a black eye, perhaps. She was, at least, alive. The noise, then the silence – that had been hard to take. The silence was in some ways more terrible.
When Ellen came back from a few days away, the dog's cage in the neighbours' garden stood in pieces, leaning against the brick wall. The curtains were drawn next door, remained closed for days then weeks.
For a while, she tensed when a car slowed outside, or when she heard the letterbox slamming in the house next door, only to see the postman walking up the path. And then she came to believe that the neighbours weren't coming back, that she had gained the peaceful life she had longed for when she moved to the village.
She started to turn up the volume of the television. Sometimes, she sang to herself, or talked back to the presenters on the radio. It gave a semblance of company, of there being someone else in the house.
When she phoned her sons, they were often about to go out, or were in meetings, or lost reception on their mobiles as they went into tunnels, busy going places, as she had encouraged them to do as they grew up. They said they would call her back, but seldom did. Ellen told herself that she liked the solitary life, the freedom from the demands of other people, but sometimes it was just too quiet.
Just as she became used to the silence, stopped expecting the sounds of swearing, or coughing or stomping about, there came one afternoon a clattering, a door being slammed in the house next door. Ellen's doorbell rang, and Cherie stood on the doorstep, smiling. Ellen invited her in. She sat in the armchair, cradling a cup of coffee. 'Thought I'd tell you what's been happening,' she said. Ellen waited as she slugged deep from her drink. 'About Neil.' Ellen wondered who Neil was – of course, the Neanderthal; his name was Neil. 'His toes, they wouldn't heal. And his leg became ... well, it started to smell.'
'God, how awful,' Ellen said.
'He wouldn't be seen by a doctor, wouldn't go to the hospital, but Lisa begged him. Said she was afraid of what might happen. But you know what he's like.' Ellen nodded. 'So I called an ambulance. He complained and swore, said he didn't need no hospital. Didn't do too much for his temper, but he was in so much pain. Then there was a right kerfuffle when they turned up. He didn't want to let them in the house. They told him straight, what would happen if he didn't get treatment … you know … so he agreed to go. They amputated, from the knee, the next morning.'
Ellen offered a biscuit. She couldn't think what else to do. She imagined the Neanderthal swearing at the nurses, the other patients, all of them dreading his next outburst.
'He's happy as Larry now; he's not in so much pain, see? But we couldn't come back here, not with the stairs.' They had been staying with his mother, dog and all, waiting for the Council to find them a suitable place. Cherie had come back to pick up the post, to pack up the last of their things.
'I'll give you our new address,' she said. Ellen opened a drawer to get a notepad and pen. The leaflets were in there, the ones she'd picked up in case Cherie should need them. There was help for women like her, for children like Lisa. Shelters, relocation, away from men like him. She put her hand on the leaflets for a second. 'I hope you'll be all right,' Ellen said, as she handed the pad and pen to Cherie.
'We'll all be fine,' Cherie said. How small she looked, how broad her smile. Later, Ellen transferred the new address and phone number into her address book, knowing that she would never use them.
Weary of the voices on the radio, she unlocked the door and stepped into the yard. There was a spit of rain in the air. She didn't bother with the old coat she kept on a hook by the back door, just slipped into the shoes that stood beneath it. She walked to the fence, to the particular square in the trellis through which the dog used to poke his head. So hungry for attention that he lapped it up, he couldn't get enough, and she too was happy in those moments. The shiver in his back in anticipation of her touch, the velvet of his ears, the thick trails of saliva he left on her hands, then the howling as she left him. But now, the only sound was the wind and a hard rain hitting the windowpanes of the shed.